Category Archives: Plants

Used To Be Wild Flowers

Tulips (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We often forget that garden flowers were originally wildflowers. This is easy to do with tulips because they look so perfect and don’t match any of our wildflowers.

Tulips (Tulipa sp.) are members of the Lily family (Liliaceae) originally from southern Europe and Central Asia. Their nearest relatives are three wildflower genera, shown in the slideshow below.

  • Erythronium: The leaves are the right shape but the flower faces down. This is the genus of our trout lilies.
  • Amana: The flower looks like a tiny white tulip but the leaves are too narrow.
  • Gagea: This mostly Asian genus has thin leaves and more open flowers, least like a tulip.
  • Erythronium caucasicum, native to central Caucasus and North Iran (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

None of the tulips’ wild relatives look exactly like a tulip because they’ve been cultivated and crossbred since the 10th century in Persia. In the 1500s, Europeans visiting the Ottoman Empire saw garden tulips and were so impressed that they brought them home. Everyone fell in love with them.

By the 1600s tulips were a luxury item, The Netherlands was the main tulip-producing nation, and the most prized tulips were those with a color “break” of two or more colors, often striped as shown below. (Ironically the “break” was caused by a virus that damaged the tulip.)

The Semper Augustus Tulip, the most expensive tulip sold during Tulip Mania (image from Wikimedia Commons)

In the 1630s the Netherlands developed a futures market on tulip bulbs and set the stage for Tulip Mania, a period of wild speculation in 1636-1637. At the height of Tulip Mania the top price paid for a coveted tulip rose to 10 times the annual income of a skilled craftsman. It’s hard to translate that into today’s dollars, but my guess is $500,000 to $1 million for a single tulip bulb.

The mania ended abruptly when the market collapsed in February 1637.

Tulips went back to the garden and eventually escaped to the wild in western Europe. After all, they used to be wild flowers.

This 7-minute video is a good explanation of Tulip Mania.

(photos and chart from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Quiz: Which Ones Are Lilies?

Day lily (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last weekend we learned about a member of the Lily family called false hellebore. Today, a quiz.

All of these flowers have the word “lily” in their names but not all of them are in the Lily family (Lilieae). Can you point out the true lilies?

  1. Day lily, above
  2. Canada lily, below.
Canada lily, Raccoon Creek State Park, July 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

3. Cala lily

Cala lily (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4. Trout lily.

Trout lily (photo by Kate St. John)

5. Lily of the Valley

Lily of the valley (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6. Bluebead lily (Clintonia)

Clintonia borealis (yellow blue-bead lily), Ashford, CT (photo by Doug McGrady, Creative Commons license on Flickr)

Leave a comment with your answer. Later today I’ll put the answers in a comment of my own.

(photos by Kate St. John, Doug McGrady Creative Commons license on Flickr, and from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)

False Hellebore: Pretty And Poisonous

False hellebore (photo by Kate St. John)

In eastern North America, spiral stalks of pleated leaves are often found in wet places where skunk cabbage grows. These pretty leaves are sometimes mistaken for skunk cabbage or wild leeks but a word to the wise: leave them alone. This plant is false hellebore (Veratrum viride) and it is very poisonous.

False hellebore is a member of the lily family that grows in wet meadows, hillside seeps, and along stream banks. It blooms in big greenish-yellow clusters but I’ve never seen its flowers, probably because I only notice the plant in late April when it isn’t blooming.

In fact, lots of people in Appalachia notice false hellebore in the spring because they’re looking for ramps (wild leeks, Allium tricoccum) to eat at home. Those who mistakenly eat false hellebore are in for a very bad time:

Symptoms of false hellebore poisoning include burning sensation in the mouth and throat, excessive salivation, cold sweat, headache, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain and gastrointestinal distress (diarrhea, gas), slow respiration and breathing difficulty, slow and irregular heartbeat, low blood pressure, and spasms or convulsions. If not promptly and effectively treated, false hellebore poisoning can cause general paralysis and even death. It is also known to cause birth defects.

from National Parks Traveler

The comments at this National Parks Traveler link tell some harrowing tales.

It’s good to know what all three look like: Ramps, skunk cabbage and false hellebore.

Ramp season is mostly over but here’s some advice for next year. When in doubt, crush the leaves. Ramps smell like onions.

(photos of false hellebore and skunk cabbage by Kate St. John, photo of ramps from Wikimedia Commons)

Irritants Are Leafing Out

Poison ivy, young leaves, 25 April 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Trees are not the only plants leafing out right now, so are two irritating plants.

Poison Ivy:

The young leaves on woody stems (above) look a lot like the new leaves of ash or maple saplings, but don’t be fooled. This is poison ivy.

Look at the plant from above to count 3 leaves. Notice that the stem on the middle leaf is much longer than the other two, a telltale sign of poison ivy.

Poison ivy, 24 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

For more identification tips, check the poison ivy ID page at

Stinging Nettle:

Stinging nettle (photo by Kate St. John)

Stinging nettle looks innocent until you touch it.

The stems and leaves are coated with tiny hollow hairs that contain histamines and painful chemicals. When you touch the plant the hairs detach and become needles in your skin. Look closely to see them on the leaf edges and stems below.

Stinging nettle resembles a lot of other nettles so the best way to identify it is to look closely for those tiny hairs. Watch out! … Ow!

(photos by Kate St. John)

Now Blooming

Bluets at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 16 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

20 April 2019

Wildflowers are blooming, elms are setting seed, and some early trees are leafing out. Here’s a sampling of buds and blooms this week in southwestern Pennsylvania.

At Raccoon Wildflower Reserve on Tuesday our group found many flowers opening including bluets (above) and early saxifrage (below). Our complete list is at the end.

Early saxifrage at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 16 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

The trail at Racoon Wildflower Reserve was littered with the tips of sugar maple branches, chiseled off by squirrels. These Acer saccharum buds are opening to reveal new flowers.

Sugar maple bud opening at Raccoon Creek Wildflower Reserve, 16 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Meanwhile in the City where it’s warmer …

This spruce in Shadyside was flowering, too. The pink buds will become cones.

American elms (Ulmus americana) have already set seed. You can tell this is an American (not slippery) elm because the samaras are deeply notched.

American elm samaras from Schenley Park, 16 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

In Schenley Park, invasive Norway maples (Acer platanoides) are leafing out.

Norway maple leaf-out in Schenley Park, 17 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spend time outdoors this weekend and see what’s blooming near you.

Here’s are list of flowers seen at Raccoon Wildflower Reserve on Tuesday 16 April 2019, in no particular order. Many flowers were only beginning to open. By now they’ll be in full bloom.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Easter Lilies Are Poisonous To Cats

Easter lily (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A flower that’s poisonous to one particular mammal …

If you have a cat, keep this plant far away from him. Easter lilies are extremely poisonous to cats.

Cat montage (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Native to Taiwan and the Ryukyu Islands of Japan, Easter lilies (Lilium longiflorum) are popular flowers at this time of year. Unfortunately every part of the plant is poisonous to cats: the flowers, the leaves, the stem, even the pollen.

Easter lilies are so poisonous to cats that if the pollen touches her and she grooms it away, it will poison her. The result is severe kidney failure.

The poisoning occurs quickly. Signs are evident within 6-12 hours of exposure. There is no antidote but immediate veterinary attention will improve the cat’s chance to live.

The Pet Poison Helpline recommends:

If your cat is seen consuming any part of a lily, bring your cat (and the plant) immediately to a veterinarian for medical care.

Pet Poison Helpline — Lilies Poisonous to cats

Do you have a dog? No worries. Easter lilies are not poisonous to dogs. This message only applies to cats.

Read more about cats at the Pet Poison Helpline. Read about dogs and lilies here.

p.s. Members of the Lilium genus are favorite foods for deer. I have not seen deer eating Easter lilies but I bet they love them.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Now Blooming

Hepatica at Cedar Creek Park, 6 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

What’s blooming in southwestern Pennsylvania this weekend?

Yesterday’s joint outing of the Botanical Society of Western PA and Wissahickon Nature Club found a lot of spring flowers at Cedar Creek Park in Westmoreland County, 6 April 2019.

Hepatica was blooming in shades of white, pink and blue. In the photo above, the leaves aren’t visible so I can’t tell if this plant is round-lobed (Anemone americana) or sharp-lobed (Anemone acutiloba) hepatica.

Harbinger of Spring (Erigenia bulbosa) was blooming along the valley trail. Did you know this plant is in the Carrot family?

Harbinger of spring at Cedar Creek Park, 6 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Snow trillium (Trillium nivale) covered the hillside beyond the last bridge …

Snow trillium at Cedar Creek Park, 6 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

… and spicebush’s (Lindera benzoin) tiny yellow flowers were a nice surprise.

Spicebush at Cedar Creek Park, 6 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Most of the spring beauty was not in bloom but we found Carolina spring beauty (Claytonia caroliniana), a specialty at Cedar Creek shown below.

Spring Beauty at Cedar Creek Park, 6 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

This bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) was bright white by the bike trail. Its leaves are barely visible, clutching the stem, while a garlic mustard leaf tries to photo-bomb the bottom corner.

Bloodroot at Cedar Creek Park, 6 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Meanwhile, how are the buckeye buds doing in Schenley Park? Some were unfurling on Friday 5 April 2019. Note the CORRECTION ABOUT BUCKEYES below!

Yellow buckeye buds, starting to unfurl their leaves in Schenley Park, 5 April 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

CORRECTION ABOUT BUCKEYES: Last week Stephen Tirone investigated the buckeye buds in Schenley and Frick Parks and learned that these are yellow buckeyes (Aesculus flava) not Ohio buckeyes (Aesculus glabra). Though Ohio buckeyes are more common in the wild, Pittsburgh’s parks are not “wild.” Schenley and Frick Parks were landscaped with ornamentals when the parks were established more than 100 years ago. Yellow buckeyes are often planted as ornamental trees and may be hybridized to produce showy flowers. So, yes, these are yellow buckeyes.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Late March in Schenley Park

  • Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), 28 March 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

Spring is coming at a good pace this year. Unlike hot years, such as March 2012, there’s time to appreciate each new leaf and flower before the next set appears.

My photos above show a selection of leaves and flowers at Schenley Park this past week. Most were taken on March 28 but the real surprise was coltsfoot blooming on St. Patrick’s Day. That flower hid for ten days and appeared again last week.

Unfortunately, all of these plants are alien and some are invasive. Their ability to spring ahead of the local plants gives them an advantage all year long.

Click here for that same honeysuckle branch, bud-to-leaves on March 11, 16.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Seed & Plant Swap, 23 Feb

Bottle gentian seeds (photo by Kate St. John)

Get ready to garden!

In just over a month Grow PittsburghPhipps Conservatory, and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh will hold their seventh annual free Seed and Plant Swap.

What: A Celebration of Seeds, the 7th annual Seed and Plant Swap
Where: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Main (in Oakland).
When: Sat. 23 Feb 2019, 11a – 3p
Event Partners: Grow PittsburghPhipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh

Seed Swap at Carnegie Library in 2018 (photo by Nick Shapiro, courtesy Grow Pittsburgh)

Free! Seeds, seedlings and perennials donated by local gardeners, farmers, and seed companies. Workshops on seed saving, seed starting and organic gardening.

Swap! Bring your own untreated, non-GMO seeds and plants to share and you’ll gain early entry to the swap (11a) and be eligible to win raffle prizes.  The swap opens to everyone at 11:30a.

Workshops and Activities:

  • Hands-on activities for children and teens
  • Seed stories
  • Gardening experts available to answer your questions
  • 3 free workshops, noon to 3p, in the North Wing Music Room. Click here for details.
Seed Swap 2018 (photo by Nick Shapiro courtesy Grow Pittsburgh)

For directions and more information, see the event announcements at Phipps and Carnegie Library.

(photo of seeds in hand by Kate St. John, photos of Seed Swap by Nick Shapiro courtesy Grow Pittsburgh)